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Too Busy to Learn?

November, 2017
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Today’s students are so very lucky. Most of them have dozens of extracurricular options to explore, both in and out of school. The benefit of such activities to most students is irrefutable. Data from a US Educational Longitudinal Study (ELS, 2002) designed to test the impact of extracurricular activities on students identified a clear positive association between extracurricular participation and academic performance among 10th Graders. Specifically, participation in extracurricular activities at moderate levels (two-three activities for an average of five hours) was positively associated with math achievement test scores, grades, and educational expectations at 12th Grade. Breadth and intensity of participation at 10th Grade also predicted educational status two years after High School.

0j7a97881Extracurricular activities provide valuable opportunities for students to explore their own curiosities and develop additional competencies outside of school. Many school curriculums are assessment heavy, leaving some students feeling less than joyful about learning. Having your child participate in interest areas outside of the classroom can support the development of academic strengths as they have the chance to learn and make mistakes without fear of the result showing up on their report card.  Extracurriculars can also provide opportunities for students to develop and hone time management, organization, leadership and communication skills. Enjoying and perhaps even excelling at activities outside of the classroom can also allow students to build self-esteem, find new friends and create relevant networks of like-minded people. Finally, students can distinguish themselves in meaningful ways through such activities, and thus significantly improve their attractiveness to colleges and universities when the time comes.

So, what is the problem? Why is this article called ‘Too Busy to Learn?’

Students who take on too many extracurricular activities can get too busy. It is possible to have too much of a good thing. Students should be mindful of the fact that extracurricular activities, while highly positive in many ways, can sink them if not properly balanced against the other things they want and need to do. Students need to set priorities and allot time according to what is most important to them overall (not just at the time of crises). So, what might the overall priorities be?

Let’s face it, good grades are important. One of the primary factors for consideration when balancing extracurricular activities should be the student’s academic goals. Students need time to study. The demands of the classroom, especially for students pursuing international curriculum, include significant deep reading, critical thinking and the development of strong writing skills. These skills take time to develop and time to execute well – so in practical terms, students need to make sure that they have and set aside the time they personally need to achieve excellence so that their school work does not suffer from taking on too many activities. Know that extracurricular activities, no matter how wonderful, are a complement to academic activities, especially if university or college is the end goal. Colleges look to extracurricular activities as a means to better understanding a student’s interests and talents, but such activities almost never outweigh a student’s demonstrated academic ability. That means colleges need to see the proof that you can get good grades – excuses or explanations about the other things you were doing at the time rarely work. Thus, it is very important for students to get the academic and extracurricular activity mix correct.

Unfortunately, in the activity-rich cites of Beijing and Shanghai, some students and their families fall prey to doing too much. As a result, many students in the race for admission to the ‘best’ colleges end up sabotaging themselves by taking on so many activities that they literally have no time for study. There is a real sense of competition in these cities that can sometimes drive parents and their students to overdo it, resulting in overscheduled, overtired, and overanxious kids. Students are urged to look not at what their peers are doing, but instead look into themselves to determine what feels right to them as individuals.

Grade prioritization aside, the next consideration should be the student’s own interest level. Colleges and universities have absolutely NO preference when it comes to a student’s chosen activities. Students should be allowed to pursue what they are most interested in. Parents in China often push their children into ‘highly valued’ activities such as violin, piano and math. We urge parents to consider the following: activities are likely to be most beneficial when their children have a genuine interest in them. Forcing a student to participate in a business contest because it sounds good if he or she would rather be fencing is unlikely to reap the rewards that parents hope for. Also, students tend to do more and better in activities they actually enjoy. As colleges see what students actually do within their activity as more important that the activity itself, students are strongly advised to focus on things they care about and make every effort to make a difference in that activity. Given the demands on student time and the pressure to do everything well, students would be wise to be as strategic as possible when selecting and engaging in activities. 

Beyond key criteria focused on academic results and personal interests, it is suggested that parents and the students also consider the following:

Your schedule – do not overbook! You need time both for academic and personal learning. After all, what is the value in taking on something but learning little to nothing because you are too busy to think about it?

Your desire to grow. Some students desire to try things that will push them out of their comfort area. This is a great, penalty free of way trying something be. Be brave! 

Reasons to delay adding an activity to the schedule:  

Taking on an activity will reduce needed time available for study (self-determined). While extracurricular activity can help make many students more cognizant of time and spark more responsibility, there are a limited number of hours in any day. Students need to look carefully at their schedules when planning activities and remember to plan travel time as unavailable for study.

Me too selections. Extracurricular activities provide a chance for students to stake out new territory. Doing what others do for the sake of doing something is an opportunity lost. Spend some time thinking and be daring enough to try something new.

Burn out. As beneficial as activity can be, every teen needs time to rest and process life. Too many activities can rob students of needed down time, leaving them feeling too worn out to perform at their best.

In the final assessment, students are best off learning to strike a balance between their academic and extracurricular activities. While challenging, making such decisions is a great first step towards developing the level of self-awareness and self-confidence needed to get the best out of opportunities presented in a way that improves their lives.


By Tess Robinson



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